The Superior Righteousness of the Kingdom
Divorce (Matt. 5:31-32)


Here, we have one of the great ethical bombshells in the entire Bible. Again, historical context is huge here to understand its significance, not to determine its meaning but to determine its historical significance.

In Matt. 19:3 "Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?' Now they are implying that if a person could legitimately divorce his wife, then he would be free to remarry. Now why would the Pharisees question Jesus this way? Of course they were trying to trap Him into making an unpopular choice and thereby be discredited with the people. On the basis of Deut. 24:1-4 the famous rabbi Shamai claimed that you could only divorce your wife if she committed adultery or some other serious sexual offense. On the other hand another famous rabbi, Hillel, claimed that on the basis of Deut. 24:1-4 you could divorce your wife if she burnt your toast for breakfast. Everything depended upon the interpretation of the word "indecency" in Deut. 24:1 (1 "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some INDECENCY in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, 2 and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, 3 and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD)".

Now as bad as Hillel's advice might seem to us, it was actually an improvement upon what had gone on before Moses had given us Deut. 24. Before Moses had given us this instruction, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all. Moreover, he could divorce her at a moment's notice. Finally, he didn't have to present her any legal document which showed that he had actually divorced her. The result was that if he divorced her and she found another man who would care for her, if the man changed his mind, he could demand she come back to her and accuse her of adultery if she refused to return to him. Adultery was punishable by death in the Mosaic Law. The woman's situation was definitely precarious. Moses' command that the woman be given a bill of divorcement meant

  1. She would be given a legal document which protected her if her husband changed his mind (RWP 1:46-47).

  2. Since it took 24 hrs. to obtain the legal document (bill of divorcement), the man had 24 hours to cool down and make sure he wanted to go through with the divorce.

Jesus, on the other hand, totally blows away his opponents' clever strategy. Both here and in Matt. 19:3-9 (see also Mark 10:1-12) Jesus raises marriage to such a high level that He almost makes divorce but definitely remarriage an impossibility for the Christian.

Now as we study these passages, we need to set aside preconceived thoughts and teachings on this. The reason we need to do this is that many times we are not teaching what the Scripture says but instead promoting the teachings of somebody who just might be contradicting Scripture.

According to Matt. 3:31 what is the only reason Jesus gives for divorce?

What does He mean by that?

If the man has not committed adultery, what has he done to the woman he has divorced (Matt. 5:32)?

We need to present something which has caused a lot of people to scratch their heads. Compare Mark 10:11 with Matt. 5:31. What is missing in Mark 10:11 that is found in Matt. 5:31?

    "He disallows divorce on the ground that it causes adultery, first on the part of the divorced woman and secondly on the part of any man who marries her. The latter idea, of a man committing adultery by marrying a divorced woman, seems to have been an innovation in that era. The bald antithesis here is that, whereas Moses allowed divorce, Jesus disallows it parektos logou porneias, the equivalent of which is found also in 19:9. These exception clauses are unique to Matthew" (WBC:123-124).
The fact that this element is missing in Mark 10:11 means we need to be even more careful with this topic than we are prone to be. This is not meant to imply that Matthew got it "wrong" like many NT scholars seem to claim; rather we just need to be extremely careful in defining what is the parektos logou porneias.

Now comes something which really disturbs our modern society AND modern church:

    "Jesus introduces the new and shocking idea that even properly divorced people who marry a second time may be thought of as committing adultery. The OT, allowing divorce, does not regard those who remarry as committing adultery. [Rather here we see] the absolute prohibition of divorce by Jesus. Marriage was meant to establish a permanent relationship between a man and a woman, and divorce should therefore not be considered an option for the disciples of the kingdom. As will appear in 19:3-12, the original ideal for man and woman was one of permanent marriage. Divorce is therefore to be shunned. The ethics of the kingdom do not blink at the idealism of such a standard (cf. 5:48).

    The conclusion is drawn by some interpreters that while divorce may be allowable for the Christian, on the basis of this passage remarriage is prohibited because it involves adultery. A divorce without the possibility of remarriage is, however, in the context of this discussion really only a separation and not a divorce" (WBC: 125).

Some will claim that the NT "implies" that it is OK to remarry if the divorce is legitimate scripturally. The fact, though, is that the NT specifically says that remarriage is OK when one of the spouses dies (Rom. 7:1-6). Paul, even when one of the spouses dies, urges remaining single (1 Cor. 7:39-40). The NT never specifically claims that the person who is legitimately divorced may remarry.

Is this interpretation of the passage legit? According to the early church, whereas divorce in some cases was allowable, remarriage never was, except in the case of death (Rom. 7:1-6). Even if one party was innocent, he/she was not allowed to remarry.

Well, so what? Who cares what the early church taught? I for one care because of the following question: where did the early church get their interpretation from? Remember that this early church is also the same church which preserved for us the writings of the apostles. Did they come up with their own explanation of these passages or are their "interpretations" nothing less than the expansions the apostles gave on these topics? Be very careful in dismissing these early expansions from the church on these topics. They may be nothing less than the interpretations or expansions from the apostles themselves, the authoritative spokesmen for Jesus. They are not like us, just holding the Bible in their hands; they are holding their Bibles with the interpretations of the apostles ringing in their ears. Rejecting the interpretations of the apostles may be tantamount to rejecting the teachings of Christ Himself whom they represented.

The further in time the church was removed from Christ, the more it got away from His teachings. HOWEVER, when something as phenomenal as Christ coming to the world is, the purity of the movement lasts for quite some time. For example, it took nearly 200 years before the U.S. got away from the original meaning of the Constitution. Now our interpretation of the Constitution is so radically different from that of its original meaning that for all practical purposes we are no longer following the original document of its creators. By the year 400, the Roman Catholic Church looks almost nothing like the church of the apostles. The first 100-150 years, though, are radically different. For my part, I am going to need a lot of evidence to support me before I reject their interpretations; a person holding a Greek Bible with a Greek/English dictionary in their hand is NOT going to be enough evidence. The early church is NOT Scripture; however, they may be accurately transmitting to us the teachings of those apostles.

Regarding the use of the Greek in interpreting, for example, 1 Tim. 3:2 "husband of one wife," some will claim that LITERALLY the Greek words mean "a man of one woman" or "a one-woman kind of man." Stating absolutely that that is the literal meaning of the passage simply shows that that person has not spent much time in studying Greek. Yes, it does literally mean "a man of one woman" or "a one-woman kind of man" BUT, and this is huge, it also literally translates "the husband of one wife." Say, what? People don't understand that the Greek language many times uses one word for 2 different but related meanings. E.G., pneuma can be translated "breath," "wind," and "Spirit." (The last 2 meanings are actually used interchangeably in John 3 when Jesus speaks about the wind "pneuma" blowing in nature like the Spirit "pneuma" blows in a person's heart at the time of salvation.)

So which translation is correct? Context is huge, but not the context we've been told to look to. When you claim that HISTORICAL context determines the meaning of a passage, you've gone from Christianity into postmodernism, a type of Hindu view of reality. The last thing divine truth is is historically conditioned. The context we go to is that of the context of Scripture. In the rest of the NT where the words gune with mia in relationship to a man are used in relationship of a man to a woman they are ALWAYS used in the sense of the husband of one wife (Matt. 19:5, 6; Mark 10:7, 8). This is the way the early church understood this. It is not until 200 years later when Origen will claim that divorce is reasonable in some cases. Reason, though, can cut both ways. (P.S., not many orthodox Christians would appeal to Origen today anyway; he castrated himself in order to achieve purity.)

An interesting note here. Probably the greatest Greek scholar Southern Baptists have ever produced is A.T. Robertson. In his Word Pictures in the New Testament, he claims that the phrase literally means "husband of one wife." But then he will go on to claim that the passage is referring to polygamy and not divorce. He has a problem though--and he admits it. Later, when these same words are flipped to refer to the woman (wife of one husband), he has to admit that Paul using these same words applied to the woman does demand that she never remarry. He then says that this was not so clear in 1 Tim. 3 (see RWP 4:72, 8). This whole claim that remarriage is allowable except in the case of the death of a spouse stands upon the shakiest of grounds.

One difference is immediately noticeable between the Matt. 19 passage and 1 Tim. 3:2. Whereas the "exception clause" is in Matt. 19, it is not in 1 Tim. 3:2. I have a hard time with scholars who question the validity of the exception clause in Matt. 19. However, I also have a hard time with those who try to inject the exception clause in 1 Tim. 3:2. It is NOT there; nor do I have the right to put it there. First Tim. 3:2 is dealing with the qualifications of leaders, unlike Matt. 19. The significance of the leaders being married only once may be huge.

Regarding this subject, the early church was uniform: no remarriage after divorce (TDNT 6:591-592 by Hauck/Schulz; if you Google the issue—“the ancient church and remarriage”, you will find the same data). For 1900 years this was the consistent stance of the church. It was not until the 1960's that the church became much smarter and started interpreting these passages differently. (Throughout history there has always been a few that differ; however, that group first is in the distinct minority, second do not reflect the original stance of those taught by the apostles, and third is not found in the early centuries of the church.)

An interesting note is this: the same people who lament what has happened to the Constitution don't blink an eyelash at all whenever the NT is treated the same way the Constitution is being treated today. Well, the approach which has changed the way we view the Bible is the same approach people use to view the Constitution. Don't lament the misuse of the Constitution if you are not going to lament the same misuse of the Bible.

Why such a high regard for marriage? And it is a high regard for marriage, one which surpasses any other view of marriage in the ancient world. The high view of marriage is based on the NT teaching first that the marriage relationship should be between one man and one woman period and second that the marriage relationship is a primary way God communicates the love of Christ for the church and the love/respect/submission of the church to Christ (Eph. 5:21-33). When divorce/remarriage is allowed, it undermines this important communication of God to the world.

In case you think that the Church has not taken this seriously, think back to the 1930's when Edward VIII, king of England, was forced to abdicate from his throne because he wanted to marry an American divorcee, Wallace Simpson (this story makes up part of the movie The King's Speech which one Best Picture last year at the Oscars). This scandal rocked the British Empire. Moreover, it occurred less than 100 years ago. It's only been recently that the church has backtracked over a teaching which has dominated the church since the time of Christ.

C.S. Lewis on divorce:

Christianity teaches that marriage is for life. There is, of course, a difference here between different Churches: some do not admit divorce at all; some allow it reluctantly in very special cases. It is a great pity that Christians should disagree about such a question; but for an ordinary layman the thing to notice is that the Churches all agree with one another about marriage a great deal more than any of them agrees with the outside world. I mean, they all regard divorce as something like cutting up a living body, as a kind of surgical operation. Some of them think the operation so violent that it cannot be done at all; others admit it as a desperate remedy in extreme cases. They are all agreed that it is more like having both your legs cut off than it is like dissolving a business partnership or even deserting a regiment. What they all disagree with is the modern view that it is a simple readjustment of partners, to be made whenever people feel they are no longer in love with one another, or when either of them falls in love with someone else.

You will notice that Lewis here deals only with divorce, not remarriage after divorce which seems to be the point of Jesus' message here.


"Jesus does not enjoin his disciples to marry, but he does sanctify marriage according to the law by affirming its indissolubility and by prohibiting the innocent party from remarrying when the guilty partner has broken the marriage by adultery. This prohibition liberates marriage from selfish, evil desire, and consecrates it to the service of love, which is possible only in a life if discipleship. Jesus does not depreciate the body and its natural instincts, but he does condemn the unbelief which is so often latent in its desires. So far then from abolishing marriage, he sets it on a firmer basis and sanctifies it through faith. The disciple's exclusive adherence to Christ therefore extends even to his married life. Christian marriage is marked by discipline and self-denial. Christ is the Lord even of marriage. There is of course a difference between the Christian and the bourgeois conception of marriage, but Christianity does not therefore depreciate marriage, it sanctifies it.

It would appear that by affirming the indissolubility of marriage Jesus contradicts the law of the Old Testament. But there is another passage (Matt. 19:8) which shows that in fact he is at one with the law of Moses. There he says that divorce was permitted in the Israelites 'for your hardness of heart'--in other words, it was to preserve them from worse excesses. The intention of the Old Testament law is the same as that of Jesus, to uphold the purity of marriage, and to see that it is exercised in faith in God. But purity or chastity is safeguarded amongst those who follow Jesus and share his life."